African-American History Month: Bill Cosby

In last week’s post on pound cake, I was reminded of Bill Cosby’s infamous Pound Cake Speech that he delivered in 2004 at the NAACP award ceremony in Washington DC.  As I mentioned in the previous post, the comedian suffered quite a bit of backlash about his criticism of the African-American community and the race’s lack of social responsibility for our position in American society.  This being the last black history month post of 2014, and having never had a previous opportunity to register my opinion, I thought I’d take the time to address this highly controversial topic.

Cosby’s speech has gotten the backlash that it has for one very simple reason: quite frankly, the truth hurts.  No one in the African-American community is willing to admit that regardless of how difficult it was to hear, Cosby made valid and pertinent points.  Those who do grant the speech any validity do so grudgingly and do not hesitate to point out that the “original American dad” fails to give any credence to the social injustices the last two centuries have imposed upon our culture.

Let me lead by saying that slavery, disenfranchisement and segregation were very real social hindrances in the time of our black American ancestors.  Let me continue by saying that racism and racial profiling, political inequality and poverty are very real social hindrances in the 20th and 21st centuries.  The difference between our ancestors and our current generations are this: the preceding generation fought for those equalities using the very system it railed against (our judiciary and political systems) to eradicate those injustices.  In our current generation, we have no evident appreciation for the struggle that came before, or any apparent desire to instill those values in our children.  We seem much more willing to complain than we are to set hands to the plow and fight for what we believe we deserve.

In 2000, Dave Chappelle in his stand-up comedy “Killin’ Them Softly” riffed on one such value: politics.  He commented that whites are generally very guarded about their political affiliations, whereas blacks tend to openly discuss politics and political inequalities.  However, Chappelle points out a very prominent point: blacks don’t vote.  We fought, bled and died risking our lives in the early 1900s to be allowed that very right.  Blacks were lynched, burned and threatened if they attempted to vote.  While the right to vote in those times were supposedly legal, polling laws were passed with criteria legislators knew black Americans couldn’t meet.  Now, according to NBC News and due to the presidency of Barack Obama, polling rates for black Americans rose in the 2008 and 2012 elections.  Prior to, only about 32% of eligible black Americans voted in any presidential election.

Cosby laments in his speech that parents these days care nothing for the values that matter.  “…these people are not parenting.  They’re buying things for the kid.  $500 sneakers and for what?  They won’t buy or spend $250 on Hooked on Phonics.”  My generation calls this “hood rich”.  We go out and spend our money on cars and rims and systems–while living in an income-based apartment complex.  We spend our tax money on shoes and clothes and the latest iPhone, and by the end of February our children look “fresh” on the bus but boarded it with an empty stomach.  It is as Cosby mentions: the hood is just enough.  What was once a stepping stone to the Jeffersons “moving on up” has now become the standard with no apparent desire to escape.  The 50% drop-out rate among African-Americans that Cosby mentions is, as he said, due in fact to the lack of value placed on the importance of American education.  In short, we teach our young children that you are born with one strike against you–you’re black–and therefore, there is no point in wishing to be anything more.

Black student standards are lower in school systems

Back when I was still dating, I remember meeting a young black man on a dating site.  He was 33 years old with a bachelor’s degree in science, a stable job he had worked for about five years,  no children and not so much as a traffic violation.  I remember gushing with my girlfriends over this guy and the rarity that he was.  A black male with no baby mama drama?  A black male with no criminal record?  A black male with a degree and a good job with aspirations of owning things: a business, a home, an investment portfolio?  It was absolutely unheard of!  But…why is this type of man a rarity?  It’s because as parents we’ve ridiculed these aspirations.  Perhaps in our own bitterness at our misshapen lives and our own past mistakes, we teach our children underachievement.  We say a C or D in a subject is okay because “at least you passed”.  We say “as long as you gave it your best, you did okay”, but okay in this modern day society is not enough.  It is not okay ball players that make it to the NBA.  It is not okay inventors that revolutionize American technology, and it is not okay students that become notorious surgeons, writers, and politicians.  Why do we celebrate mediocrity?  Why are we afraid to push our children?  Why do we not teach them that the foundation of success is built on the bricks of failure?  Why have we stunted our children’s ability to dream…?

It is not wrong to appreciate and value one’s culture.  By all means, keep your street vernacular and “cultural dress”–as long as you know that when you step from outside your neighborhood and into school and corporate America, we speak English in this country.  How can we ridicule and criticize Hispanic and Asian immigrants who have not learned to speak proper English when black Americans who were born here can’t even do so?  At some point, we must aspire to be more.  We must aspire, like our ancestors, to take the judicial and political system and turn it on its ear.  We have to realize that a “street pharmacist” is not a real job nor is it a legal way to make money.  We have to stop being afraid to get more than a part-time job for fear that our food stamps will get cut off.  We have to stop blaming others for our lot in life–especially when we haven’t even tried.

I am now married to a man who was raised in an inner city by a drug-addicted and abusive mother, kicked out at 14 years old, dropped out of school and promptly became a millionaire as a career criminal.  Hustling was all he knew.  Now, he will soon be an ordained pastor who seeks to reinvest in his former community by establishing a non-profit that teaches young impressionable men what Cosby and Steve Harvey had been saying from the beginning: it starts at home.  It starts with telling our children there is more than this, and you can have it–with hard work and perseverance.  You may not be afforded the same opportunities as your white counterparts, but you’ll appreciate it more because you fought for it.  And you’ll be the better for it because it wasn’t handed to you on a silver platter.  You and the grace of the Almighty God made it happen.

You cannot blame society for your lot in life if you are unwilling to take advantage of the rights and freedoms already afforded you by the sweat, blood and struggle of the preceding generation.  Don’t get me wrong: hundreds of thousands marched on Washington so you could have a choice.  You are free not to care about education or want one; you are free to sell, purchase and abuse narcotics if you so choose.  You are free to remain at a dead-end job.  But, you made that choice–that is not the work of an all-powerful white culture society oppressing your ability to be successful.  There are no bars around our inner cities, ladies and gentlemen; nor is there an angel with a flaming sword at the gate of modern suburbia.  You are free to leave whenever you wish.

Still there are some who will say, “Raynetta, you know it’s not that easy.”  You’re right; it isn’t.  Racism and racial inequalities are very real injustices in our society.  But we must be careful not to make these injustices very real excuses to remain impoverished by mediocrity.  Strive, my people.  You can only be what you believe you are…

African-American History Month: Pound Cake

I know: it sounds incredibly ridiculous.  “You’re writing a black history month post on…food?”  Hear me out.  I love food!  I’m a self-professed foodie.  As a matter of fact, when I was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, I went on a rampage trying to find healthy foods I was permitted to eat that didn’t taste like dry rice cakes and undressed tuna.  But perhaps more than actual food, I love cake (and icecream).  And this week, I found myself wondering why, in African-American culture, we celebrate so heavily–and with so many different varieties–of cake.

Most people know by now about the tradition of what is called “soul food” in the African-American culture.  Food is so special to black Americans because, during the times of slavery, food was pretty much all blacks had that was theirs.  It gave them the opportunity to be creative and to demonstrate their love to their families and friends.  Food was a community affair; everyone, both immediate and extended family as well as neighbors, would gather around one table and share a meal, often times for no real occasion at all.  Sunday dinner is a family tradition in most African-American households, and, if you’ve ever been invited to one of these dinners, you’ll notice the crowd is not limited to blood relations.  Even learning to cook is a tradition most black women pass on to their girls, and both cooking and baking are subjects of tremendous pride.  Recipes are passed down through numerous generations, and signature dishes and desserts abound.
Of all the cakes and dishes my mother (and grandmothers) have made over the years, pound cake is the one that stands out most for me.  We had at least one pound cake–lemon, vanilla, sour cream, rum raisin–at every holiday or gathering.  There was no such thing as having dinner without a dessert planned, and if some form of pound cake wasn’t on the dessert table, somebody complained.  Of all the desserts friends and coworkers request of my mother, her pound cake is #1.  Now, (since I’ve had several surgeries and my palette is incredibly sensitive), pound cake has become one of my favorites, too.  It’s not too sweet, can be very light (or fulfillingly dense), and doesn’t even require icing to be tasty–although my mother does a fantastic lemon drizzle sometimes that can make you wanna slap…well, your mama.
Pound cake got its name from its massive ingredients: one pound each of sugar, butter, eggs and flour.  This batter of course could feed multiple families–and did.  As I mentioned previously, meals were a family affair, and there were usually quite a few people gathered to eat together during slavery days.  This recipe became so popular because it was easy to remember; most black Americans could not read or write due to slave codes in America that prevented the education of slaves.  As time went on and the necessity for such a large cake decreased, the recipe was altered to allow for a lighter, smaller cake.  But of course, the name stuck.
When Abby Fisher published the first African-American cookbook in 1881, it was no surprise there were two recipes for pound cake: one more traditional version that included the whole egg, and a second called “Silver Pound Cake” which only required egg whites.  In her time, Abby was known primarily for pickling, but her catering business churned out thousands of pound cakes in multiple variations.  In time, the invention of the mechanical egg beater by Willis Johnson in 1884 (which led to today’s electric mixer) aided bakers of every ethnicity to be more productive in their kitchens.
The pound cake’s cultural prevalence is evident in its multiple references in aesthetic mediums.  Poundcake became an urban sexual vernacular after Van Halen used it in a song, and Drake released his song “Pound Cake” in 2013, again as a sexual metaphor.  Probably the most notorious use is Bill Cosby’s Pound Cake Speech made by the comedian at an NAACP award ceremony in 2004.  The speech was so titled because of its analogy of common criminals versus political incarceration during the civil rights movement.  Cosby has suffered much social backlash behind this speech for its criticism of the African-American community’s failure to take responsibility for their social and educational conditions.

These days, everyone has a recipe for pound cake.  It is no longer thought of as an African-American dessert or tradition, as is soul food in general despite its prominent historical relevance in southern culture.  Each recipe has its different variation in measurements and flavor, but one thing is for certain: it remains as tasty as ever.  So no matter the flavor or the way you dress it, I suggest you go out and grab yourself a slice.  I can guarantee you won’t regret it!

Do you have a fantastic recipe for pound cake?  Share it with us!

African-American History Month: The Lovings

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Today’s Black History Month post absolutely had to include something about love because I just couldn’t ignore this notorious holiday while trying to recognize my cultural history.  However, the quest for civil rights hardly ever included LOVE as a precedent.  So imagine my excitement when I remembered this historic civil rights Supreme Court case: Loving v. Virginia.

Mildred (nee Jeter), an African- and Native American, and Richard, a Caucasian, began seeing each other in secretly as teenagers.  After 5-7 years of dating, Mildred became pregnant at the age of 18.  Both, already in love and eager to tie the knot, decided to get married.  They drove 90 miles north to Washington DC and married in a civil ceremony, returning to their hometown of Central Point, Virginia thereafter.

A couple of weeks later, following an anonymous tip that the Loving couple was in violation of the law, the sheriff’s department burst into the Loving home and demanded to know why they were sleeping together.  When Mildred explained she was Richard’s wife and pointed to the marriage certificate hanging on the wall, the sheriff promptly replied, “That’s no good here.”  Richard went to jail, as did the still pregnant Mildred, and eventually the two pleaded guilty to the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which held that interracial dating, marriage and cohabitation was illegal in Virginia.  Their marriage license and Mildred’s pregnancy were both used as evidence in their case.  Their respective one-year sentences were suspended: with the provision that the Loving leave Virginia permanently and not return as a couple for 25 years.  The Lovings complied, moving to Washington DC, and only visited family and friends at home separately.

This was their life for about five years, but by 1963, the Lovings were fed up.  They contacted the infamous Robert F. Kennedy who referred them to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).  The ACLU filed several motions on behalf of the Lovings, famously ending with an argument at the federal Supreme Court on which stated that the couple’s banishment and ostracism from Virginia was unconstitutional under the precedents of the Fourteenth Amendment.  The case was argued with the Supreme Court on April 10th and on June 12, 1967, the Supreme Court concluded that anti-miscegenation laws were racist and had been enacted to with the sole purpose of enforcing white supremacy.

The Loving v. Virginia ruling caused a dramatic increase in interracial marriages across America, but particularly in the South.  Today, among opposite-sex couples, 1 in 10 marriages (5.4 million) are
interracial, based on the 2010 census.  Even 21% of same sex marriages are interracial or interethnic.  The Loving ruling quite literally changed the face of love and marriage in the United States.  While enslaved, African-Americans produced mixed (or what was considered “mulatto”) children by force when raped or required to lie with their overseers and estate masters.  But the Loving case made the willful decision to marry between races legal, causing an ethnic integration never before seen in America.  Now bi- and/or multiracial has become an option on American forms everywhere to accommodate Americans born of unions between interracial couples.  This case was also cited in the overturning of same sex marriages in Utah in December 2013 in its decision of Kitchen v Herbert, establishing that love and the opportunity of marriage should be denied to no one.

The Lovings’ story was made into two movies: Mr. & Mrs. Loving (1996) starring Lela Rochon and Timothy Hutton, and The Loving Story produced by HBO and aired on Valentine’s Day 2012.  The Lovings proved that love truly has no boundaries.  What an incredible thing to remember on a day like today.

Mildred Loving Biography
Loving v. Virginia
USA Today 4.26.12

African-American History Month: Allen Allensworth

Welcome to yet another African-American History Month post!  I have so much fun doing these, and I finally have the time to do another for you.  I pride myself on bringing you little known black history facts every February, but this one surprised even me!

Today’s black history post is on Allen Allensworth.  My California readers have probably heard of the Allensworth State Historic Park and the accompanying museum: Allensworth: A Place. A People. A History.  Did you know Allensworth set out to create a city designed specifically for African-Americans where they could live free of political and social persecution?  Allensworth, CA still stands today, and though it did not accomplish what it was meant to be, Allen Allensworth was a stellar black American indeed.

Allensworth was born a slave in 1842 Kentucky.  The youngest of 13 children, Allen was assigned as a companion to the youngest male child of the plantation master, and, alongside his new companion, was taught to read and write.  Educating a slave was a criminal act in that time, and to hide Allen’s talents, his mistress sent him off to live with a Quaker who continued his education.  Eventually, his knowledge was discovered, and Allen was immediately sent to work as a field hand.

Allen despised his slave status and considered slavery to be second class citizenry.  He knew he wanted out and constantly sought ways to do so.  When he was sold to Fred Scruggs, a horse owner and racer, Allen found that he was a talented jockey.  Scruggs noticed this, too, and moved Allen from exercise boy to jockey.  In 1862, Allensworth traveled to Louisville with his master to a horse race being held there.  It was there he met and conversed with Union soldiers of the 44th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment.  Upon confessing to them his desire to be a free man, the soldiers helped him conspire an escape.  They loaned Allen an infantry coat and covered his face in mud, smuggling him out of Louisville and into the Union military.  Allen served as a nursing aide for a time during the Civil War, then joined the US Navy.

It was during this post that he became chaplain for the cavalry of African-Americans serving at the time.  IT was President Grover Cleveland who finally appointed him to this position.  He maintained as chaplain for 20 years.  In addition, he used his position to emphasize the importance of education of enlisted personnel, penning two works that eventually became governing army standard manuals.  Shortly before his retirement, Allensworth was promoted to lieutenant colonel, making him the first black officer to ever receive the rank.  He retired to Los Angeles after a long career.

Despite such notorious attributes early in his life, Allensworth is most historically well-known for his founding of Allensworth in California.  A firm believer in the similar teachings of Booker T. Washington, Allensworth was quite vocal about the African-American’s responsibility to himself first.  He emphasized economic frugality (“Don’t put a five dollar hat on a five cent head”) and admonished black Americans to strive to own property and work for themselves.  The development of the Allensworth community set out to do precisely that, anchoring to be the first race community that was completely funded and built by African-Americans themselves.

Once Allensworth and his team found land to purchase (a difficult task in itself as Jim Crow was still the law of the land), expansion happened quickly.  Within a year, 35 families had moved into the town and immediately the Allensworth colony began to take on a sense of community.  The settlement had two general stores, a post office, a school and eventually even a library.  A train station stopped through, the land was fertile and fresh water was supplied through a local water works company.  Life was good.

The town’s luck began to turn when it lost its leader.  Allensworth, while visiting Monrovia for a lecture, was struck by two white boys driving recklessly on a speeding motorcycle.  The two were never apprehended and whether or not the assault was accidental or intentional was never determined.  Nevertheless, the accident resulted in Allensworth’s death, leaving a distinct lack of leadership in his new colony.  Slowly but surely, things in the town started downhill, and before long, its residents began migrating from the colony to find work.

Allen Allensworth, despite what could be considered a failed effort, exemplified the integrity he endeavored to teach.  Realizing that nothing changes without someone willing to change, he pushed forward to every goal he ever set in his efforts to establish laws and communities that benefited black Americans.  He led by example for those who lives he touched, and his efforts still stand as rules to live by for blacks living in this century.

America Comes Alive
History Net

A Slave Revolt Short Story

1811 Louisiana Slave Revolt

I hope everyone enjoyed my African-American History Month series this February.  Considering it’s leap year (happy 29th!), on the last day of this month, I wanted to be sure I shared my own little tidbit of black history.

In high school, my favorite class was African-American studies.  I absorbed so much from my teacher and developed a hunger to discover and learn more little known facts about our culture.  Toward the end of the semester, my teacher assigned a project: construct an effective slave revolt, taking into account all the many obstacles a slave on a plantation would have to consider.  For example, we had to have a plan for avoiding slave patrols, overcoming the onsite overseer, and thwarting attempts by other slaves to win their freedom by reporting your revolt.  We even had to consider illiteracy as an obstacle, considering that due to slave codes, it was illegal to educate a slave.  Instead of putting together a PowerPoint presentation, as so many of my classmates did, I wrote a short story that I’ve been told my old teacher still has.

The story I wrote is one of my favorites.  I’ve included it here as an added bonus for you to experience, in honor of African-American History Month.  Hopefully, one day my work will be as infamous as the great heroes about which I’ve written these past four weeks.  Don’t forget to let me know what you think in the comments below; enjoy!A Letter to My Children

African-American History Month: Alex Haley

“In every conceivable manner, the family is a link to our past, a bridge to our future.”

You can almost sum up notorious author, Alex Haley, in one word: Roots.  And what a word.  There’s not a black American on this earth (save small children) who hasn’t seen the series.  The book and subsequent miniseries, starring Levar Burton, succeeds at being both infuriating and inspiring simultaneously.  Having met and interviewed nearly every significant civil rights activist in his time, Alex Haley forged his reputation as a writer through his gritty interactions with these individuals in a series in Playboy, referred to as “The Playboy Interviews”.  Following his expose on Malcolm X, Haley requested the opportunity to write the prominent Muslim’s biography, which became The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley.  The notoriety that followed the book’s release gave Haley the insight and courage to write his own memoir, starting at the very beginning, in a village in Gambia, where a tribal historian relayed the story of Haley’s African ancestor, Kunta Kinte.

Alex Haley was born August 11, 1921 to Simon and Bertha Haley, both becoming educators while still in their prime.  Alex, highly intelligent and amazingly gifted himself, followed quickly in their footsteps, graduating high school at the age of 15.  From there, he entered college, eventually dropping out to join the Coast Guard at 17.  He excelled quickly there, too, first as a seaman and later as an officer when he transferred to the field of journalism.  He was highly decorated in his 20 years of military service, earning American Defense Service and World War II Victory medals.  However, Alex had always wanted to write, but writing barely made ends meet.  In the first few years, Alex reported having only made about $2000 a year working 16-hour days and eating only canned sardines for weeks at a time.  His big break in his writing career came when Playboy approached him to interview trumpeter Miles Davis, to which Alex eagerly agreed.  The article was such a success that Playboy hired Haley full time to interview more prominent African-Americans, to include Martin Luther King Jr, Sammy Davis Jr, and Quincy Jones.

Following his success with The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Alex had achieved the success he craved; the writing opportunities were thrown at him left and right.  But he would instead embark upon a more personal project: a 12-year investigation tracing his family’s history back to Africa.  Alex wanted to be sure he accurately portrayed the historical accounts of his enslaved ancestors; booking a passage back to the States on a cargo ship, he spent the duration of the journey in its bowels wearing nothing but his underwear.  His research spanned three continents and became the masterpiece Roots.  Several years later, a sequel of sorts tracing the history of another branch of his family became the novel Queen, also developed into a miniseries starring Halle Berry.

Alex’s historical novels caused a new interest in genealogy in African-American culture.  Soon, black Americans across the country, inspired by Alex’s works, began the hunt for their own ancestors, tracing their histories as far as public records would carry them.  Alex Haley’s body of work has entreated black Americans to embrace and explore their backgrounds and discover their own personal African-American history.

Roots: Breaking Kunta Kinte

African-American History Month: Jubilee Singers

“We stand on the shoulders of the original Jubilee Singers, continuing their legacy, as we sing Negro spirituals.”

Fisk University found itself in dire financial straits in 1871, its doors potentially set to close if its administrators couldn’t raise the money they needed to stay open.  George White, a music professor and treasurer at the facility, compiled a group of nine members–all former slaves–and developed a chorus.  On October 6, 1871, the group embarked on a tour, intent to raise money to save their school.  The 6th of October remains Jubilee Day at the historic college to this day.

They were met with opposition from the very beginning.  Belittled, heckled and accosted along their trip, the Jubilee Singers gave concert after concert persevering through the racism they met at nearly every city.  Many became ill: stressed and worn down by exhaustion and cruelty.  But their beautiful voices quickly began to change attitudes on their tour, predominantly among white audiences.  Consistently striving forward, in spite of the odds, jeers toward the singers were progressively replaced with standing ovations and encore requests.  Finally, the Jubilee Singers–so named by their director for the year of Jubilee in biblical Leviticus–returned home with all the funds they needed to save their school.

Their notoriety spread quickly, and it wasn’t long before they were requested by other schools, programs, and businesses.  They won the World Peace Festival in Boston, Massachusetts in 1872 and shortly after, performed at the White House for Ulysses Grant.  In 1873, the Jubilee Singers embarked on a tour of Europe, the first trip of what would become many.  That tour provided the funds for a building that stands on campus to this day, Jubilee Hall.

A movie, Jubilee Singers, Sacrifice and Glory, was made to retell their story.  Passionate and inspiring, the film brings the singers’ post-Civil War turmoil to life, highlighting their fears and pains while celebrating their unyielding faith and perseverance.  Courage insurmountable elevated the Jubilee Singers to world wide respect and stardom.

Now, Fisk University proudly continues the original choir’s tradition with a powerful throng of strong African-American male and female voices, singing nothing but Negro spirituals.  The group has become legendary, although often unsung.  Recent Fisk University Jubilee Singers have performed at Carnegie Hall, the White House, and even the far reaches of Ghana and South Africa.  The video below is a tribute created to honor the group; the accompanying track is “Oh my Lord” performed by the 2005-2006 choir for the “Sacred Journey” album released in 2007.

African-American History Month: Josephine Baker

“There’s one thing I’ve learned you’ll never be punished for…giving.”

I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I saw The Josephine Baker Story (1991), but I do remember being captivated.  I had to have been pretty young because the scenes of topless Josephine, played by Lynn Whitfield, in her banana skirt embarrassed me; I distinctly remember being flushed in my cheeks, but still unable to turn away.  I had never seen a woman portrayed so starkly before, and I was mesmerized by her glamor, beauty, and aggression.  It’s been one of my favorite films ever since.

It wasn’t until high school and an assignment in African-American studies that I really started to discover who the woman behind the show biz truly was.  It’s been said she was the most photographed woman in the world; photographers and painters sought her out across countries.  Endlessly independent, Josephine swept her way through a whirlwind of men.  Being as she never had to depend on a man for monetary stability, she found it easy to discard them when things grew ugly.  Born in 1906, Josephine Baker got her start touring with the Dixie Steppers in 1919, but got the opportunity to hone her craft in Paris in the early ’20s.  La Revue Nègre, the show that lured the beautiful Baker to Paris in the first place, proved to be a major turning point in her career. Josephine and her dance partner at the time, Joe Alex, dazzled their Parisian audience with the Danse Sauvage.  In nothing but a feathered skirt, Paris rewarded Baker’s daring unveiling with applause and critical accolades.  When La Revue Nègre closed, Josephine starred in La Folie du Jour at the Follies-Bergère Theater. It was in this revue that she donned her infamous costume–16 bananas strung into a skirt–cementing her European celebrity status.

 She did not fare so well in her own country, however.  In 1936, she returned to the United States to star in the Ziegfield Follies; the show received scathing reviews.  The New York Times in fact called her a “Negro wench”, and Josephine returned to France licking festering wounds.

“[The Eiffel Tower] looked very different from the Statue of Liberty, but what did that matter? What was the good of having the statue without the liberty?” 

 Singing for the troops during WWII, Josephine began to feel a distinct nudge she hadn’t since she was a little girl.  The separation of black and white gnawed at her, and it wasn’t long before she began to do something about it.  She fought the segregation of the troops while aiding the French Resistance.  Finally, coming back to perform in the United States in the ’50s and ’60s, Josephine refused to perform in segregated clubs or eat in establishments that wouldn’t serve other blacks.  Always vocal, both lyrically and socially, Josephine forced the American public to see what it refused to see: a nation living in hypocrisy.  Eventually, Josephine did return to Paris, but not before leaving an indelible impact on the US.

Her “Rainbow Tribe”–12 adopted children of multiple nationalities–stood as her final testament against racism.  She is quoted as saying, “I think they must mix blood, otherwise the human race is bound to degenerate. Mixing blood is marvelous. It makes strong and intelligent men. It takes away tired spirits.”  The last song of her last set before her death in 1975 was “The Times Are a-Changin'”, a song that truly imparts her feelings about people that hold on to the ugliness of racism.  Sung with such intensity, Josephine’s passion about humanity wafts above the music, both resounding and clear.

African-American History Month: John Henry

African-American history is about the celebration of black history and culture.  While there are a great many African-Americans in our history that risked their lives to oppose laws and constructs that prevented racial equality, there are some black people in our history that we discuss simply because of their effects on our culture and the inspiration their existence has given us.

The same is true of John Henry, a steel driver, believed to have been born a slave sometime in the 1840s or ’50s.  While his story is arguably legend only, his tale stands as a monument of inspiration for black Americans as one of our first role models.  Following emancipation, John and his wife leave the plantations for the western frontier looking for jobs and a place to settle; there, they happen upon a crew laying track for the C&O railroad.  Each man on the crew is promised 50 acres of land on the opposite side of the Alleghany Mountains if they can complete the job by the deadline.  Because John stood over six feet tall, a giant in those days, and a former field hand used to extreme outdoor conditions, he was perfect for the job.

Quickly the legend around him grew.  As the deadline drew closer, men and task masters from other crews began to use steam-powered drills to complete the laying of the train tracks and the digging out of the rock of the mountain.  These machines took away the jobs the crews, comprised of mostly African-Americans and immigrants, needed to earn land for shelter and food and creating a livelihood in the west.  Seeing the plight of the workers, John challenged the machine to a contest.  The story goes that John won that contest, armed with two sledgehammers, but died shortly after from exhaustion.

John Henry’s true origin has been debated by many scholars, but the general consensus sets the story in West Virginia and the forging of the Big Bend Tunnel, where a towering statue of John Henry stands to this day.  I was inspired to write about John Henry because, not only is he a black American icon about whom I was relatively ignorant, but thanks to my son, I was enlightened by.  He saw a Disney video about John Henry that in turn inspired him to learn more about our culture and other icons about which we hear very little during this month of recognition.

The primary question seems to be if John Henry was a real person.  As with Paul Bunyan, the establishment of the glorified west is forged with the tales of Herculean giants clearing forests with one fell swoop and drilling through mountains with only a steady hand and a 20-pound sledgehammer.  But it doesn’t really matter whether John Henry actually beat a machine to the other side of a mountain.  It is the hope and inspiration this tale provides for African-Americans.  John dedicated his life to a cause; he gave it so that others could pass on through–literally.  The fact that his sacrifice contributed to a tunnel through which thousands of people travel daily only enhances the legend and the weight of that sacrifice.  He is now immortalized at the entrance to that tunnel.

Watch the video that inspired my son and me, Disney’s An American Legend, narrated by none other than James Earl Jones.  I know you’ll find it as fascinating as we did.

African-American History Month: Whitney Houston

I had a totally different plan for this morning’s blog post.  However, in lieu of breaking events, I felt compelled to write about an inspiring black artist, Ms. Whitney Houston.

Whitney celebrated her 18th birthday on the day I was born.  So it is quite surreal to be writing this memorial, knowing that my entire ’80s experience was a soundtrack written by her.  Even my favorite scene in Coming to America is the cover Eddie Murphy’s character Randy Watson botches of “Greatest Love of All”.  There are pictures somewhere, I’m sure, of my cousin and I jumping around my aunt’s living room in tutus and pink wigs singing “I Wanna Dance with Somebody”.  The face of American pop is forever changed because of her amazing voice, and there are an insane amount of artists who owe their careers to her.  And although the last decade of her life was tumultuous, to the extent that my 10-year old son had no idea who she was, she defined the ’80s and ’90s and set the standard for greatness so that the Beyonces and Adeles of the world could even have a shot at the limelight.

While The Bodyguard (1992) was not an astounding movie, the soundtrack soared with hits.  One of my favorite Whitney songs came from that film (and no, it is not “I Will Always Love You”).  “Queen of the Night” was my jam for like six months.  I still have the cassette tape of the soundtrack…although it will most likely not play because I wore the thing out.  Her subsequent movies always had an amazing touch of her grace on the soundtracks: The Preacher’s Wife (1996) and Waiting to Exhale (1995) all have classics I still have on my iPod.

Not ironically, Whitney (and Mariah) songs are the graveyard for most singers entering into competitions because incredible vocalists like her are difficult to imitate.  If you happen to pull it off, it sounds like karaoke; and when you tank it…well, you tank hard.  Yet, singers aspire to do precisely that–because if you can effectively sing a Whitney song, well, you’ve arrived.  Jennifer Hudson did a beautiful job at last night’s Grammy Awards Tribute; she was able to sing it well and make it her own, instead of attempting to sing it the way Whitney did.  Because let’s be honest: there is no one who really can.

And that’s what we loved about her: that she was refreshingly original with a voice that couldn’t be mimicked or copied.  When  one of her songs played, the voice was unmistakable, and your heart swelled with warmth and joy.  She sang pop songs with a gospel feel: her ballads made you wave your hand in the air and sway; her dance tracks had you all but shouting in the aisles.  She was a breath of fresh air in the darkest of times and everything we celebrated at the best of times.  Her death is truly a loss of not only a remarkable voice and incredible talent, but a beautiful spirit, unfortunately tragically taken too early from our lives.

Rest in peace, Whitney.  You will be missed.  

Whitney Houston: August 9, 1963-February 11, 2012.